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Judging Grilled Cheeses

November 10, 2017

It’s unfortunate that grilled cheese sandwiches have been shortened to the simplified term of “grilled cheese”, because grilled cheese is a thing. And if you haven’t tried halloumi yet, you should really get on that. It’s delicious.

But so are grilled cheese sandwiches.

Now I can’t remember how this came to be, so I don’t know which hat I’ll be wearing, but I do know that on Saturday, November 18 at the Takk House, I’ll be judging the Capital Region’s first grilled cheese festival.

While I do judge food competitions fairly regularly in the service of the FLB, I’m pretty sure this opportunity was the result of Yelp being one of the sponsors of the event. All Over Albany is another sponsor, and I love being on the same ticket as my favorite local website.

So here’s the question. What do you look for in a great grilled cheese sandwich?

The Capital Region has a lot of food contests, and many of them have “creativity” on the judging sheets. And I get the impulse. Encouraging chefs to be creative is deeply rewarding. I too want to see what chefs can do when left to their own devices.

But when you are judging a contest around a singular theme, it can get messy. For example, you can end up judging a chowder competition without tasting a single sample that tastes like traditional clam chowder.

Instead, you find yourself contemplating wave after wave of soups named after different foods, with the word chowder placed at the end. You know, like reuben chowder, or buffalo chicken chowder, or bacon cheeseburger chowder. Or you may even end up with a sweet potato and kale chowder, because—as the kids say these days—that’s creative af.

I don’t want creativity in my grilled cheese. My desires are pretty simple.

The bread should be deeply grilled and intensely buttery.
The cheese needs to be fully melted and well seasoned.
The sandwich must be served hot.

As far as I’m concerned, the entire thing is a study in textural contrasts. There are some who will argue that if you put other ingredients besides cheese into a grilled cheese sandwich you are making a different kind of sandwich, and that sandwich is called a melt.

For more on that, I’m going to put this here, because it’s worth a read.

The goal of a grilled cheese is to provide something that’s delicious and deeply comforting. Adding ingredients for the sake of creativity isn’t necessary. Which isn’t to say that added ingredients cannot contribute to the deliciousness of a grilled cheese sandwich. However, they can also get in the way.

So much depends on the texture, temperature, and moisture of those ingredients.

While I’ve long understood why someone would want tomato on their grilled cheese sandwich, I’ve never had a grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato on it that I’ve loved.

Of course, when serving as a judge on a panel for a food competition, one is constrained by the score sheet of the event. And I have no idea how Melt N’ Toast will have us evaluate the participants.

I do know that The Cheese Traveler will be there. When making individual sandwiches at the shop, this is hands down the best grilled cheese sandwich in the area. But will they be able to maintain that quality when cooking at the Takk House for potentially hundreds of people?

Slidin’ Dirty will be there too, and they are masters at both comfort foods and catering. I could also imagine them wanting to put their slider rolls in a panini press to make their sandwiches. But would they go through the extra step of slicing off the tops and the bottoms of the roll, so the bread could absorb some more delicious butter?

Sunhee’s Farm & Kitchen is signed up too. I know that french fries topped with kimchi and cheese is a thing. I’ve never had it. But people love it. And it would seem to give credence to the idea of a Korean flavored grilled cheese sandwich. I do love kimchi. This could be a love it or hate it experience.

Savoy Taproom is in the competition, and I’ve met the executive chef at this Lark Street restaurant. She has talent. Particularly she has a talent for searing and seasoning, which are two things required for a great grilled cheese sandwich.

Muddaddy Flats has built a business around melting cheese on a griddle, but their delivery mechanism of choice has been flour tortillas and not bread, per se. It’s a restaurant dedicated to the quesadilla. One advantage of using a large flour tortilla is that it can be wrapped in on itself to contain more melted cheese than a sandwich, with its pesky open edges.

I don’t know much about Fresh Greens at the Park, The Beer Diviner, or Merv’s Meatless, besides the fact that the later is vegan, so that will be interesting.

Heck, this whole thing will be interesting. It’s kind of like a self contained Tour de Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Except instead of having to put over a hundred miles on your car driving around from place to place, you get to hang out at the Takk House and listen the the beats dropped by DJ Trumastr.

Do the kids still say that?

Tickets are still available, and you can get them here. Or you can risk them selling out, and enter the contest to win a free pair on Yelp. But that contest ends on Monday, so if you don’t win hopefully there are still more tickets for sale on Tuesday.

It would be great to see some familiar faces in the crowd, and maybe meet some new ones.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Pam C. permalink
    November 10, 2017 8:29 pm

    I am with you, Daniel, about the butteriness (is that a word? 🤔) of the bread. I want to taste that butter. But I do not mind the occasional addition of tomato, or bacon, or ham. You are right, anything else is a melt. In college I worked in the student union snack bar, mostly burgers, subs, fries, etc. We did have something made to order called a “grilled cheese burger”. The bread was buttered and placed on the flat top grill, each slice separate. Cheese was placed on each slice to melt. A hamburger was also cooked alongside it. When finished, the burger was placed between the two bread slices. It tasted wonderful, and I have made it at home many times since then. Something like a “patty melt”, I guess.

  2. November 13, 2017 11:44 am

    Lots of cheese with plenty of deep rich flavor that’s melted thoroughly, on crispy grilled bread

  3. Benjamin permalink
    November 15, 2017 12:24 pm

    Can you believe some people smear the outsides of the bread with oil or even mayo (which contains oil) instead of butter? Yuck.

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